The Benefits of Backing Off a Little

The brain is such a cool organ.

Radiolab’s blog recently posted an article called “The Benefits of Playing Hooky,” which is really about facing a problem head-on, and how giving yourself a break is really beneficial. This is something I’ve experienced a lot lately, as I write and re-write my solo performance.

I’m just going to copy-and-paste a chunk from the article, because they say it better than I can.

If you’re stumped on a problem, sitting and agonizing at your desk may actually be the worst thing you can do. You’ve heard this before. You’ve probably experienced it. That annoying paradox where it seems an answer won’t present itself until you’ve stopped trying to figure it out. (Archimedes can’t figure out volume until he’s chillin’ in the bath.) Well, these new studies suggest there are really certain types of insights that simply cannot switch on until you stop “thinking.”

I learned about this perverse little trick of the human mind in Jonah Lehrer’s new book, Imagine, which looks at how the brain comes up with new ideas. The way these kind of “eureka moments” work is fascinating. As I get it, your own desire to solve a puzzle takes on a physiological form in your brain. Scientists Mark Beeman and John Kounios gave subjects word teasers (One was: pine, crab, sauce. What word “fits” with all of them? Apple. Pineapple, crab apple, apple sauce. Ok, try another: sand, age, mile. _______??). Beeman and Kounios watched as their subjects’ left hemispheres lit up—blood flow churning in the language areas as they considered every possible connection. (Errr… “blast?” Sandblast, ageblast… No… Errr… “castle?” No….) Sometimes, this kind of thinking gets you to the answer. But on the more challenging puzzles, this heavy brain slogging eventually becomes its own dead end. I picture it almost like a dam: each and every connection you’ve pursued turns solid, almost like a wire grid, that eventually fences off your path to the answer. After enough time, this leads into wall of frustration—subjects come to a point where they yell at the researchers, “these puzzles are too hard!” They feel there’s no answer to be found. They want to quit.

For the lucky few who do figure it out, the answer rarely comes from hammering on with the labored thinking. Instead, Kounios and Beeman watched as, time after time, an insight appeared from a completely different part of the brain. Far away from the struggling query of the left brain, deep down in a small area near your right ear, that looks to me like a Sphinx (called the Anterior Superior Temporal Gyrus, or aSTG. I’m gonna keep calling it the Sphinx, OK? The Sphinx.). They would see the Sphinx glow hot—with gamma waves, the highest frequency of electricity produced by the brain. 30 milliseconds later, the person would bolt up and say, “Aha!”

Joydeep Bhattacharya—a scientist working with a similar experimental set-up to Kounios and Beeman, but using a different set of riddles—made this hooky connection after noticing something funny. The harder his subjects thought, the further they seemed to get from the answer. He’d flash hints at them, and…nothing. It was almost like, with their thinking so loud, they couldn’t hear these obvious clues. But if the subjects began to give up for a bit, to zone out and relax (and he could see this not just from their posture but on EEG readings), the clues would suddenly snap into place, and lead them to an answer.

The relaxed state Bhattacharya picked up on the EEG readings was characterized by a type of brain wave called “alpha waves.” Though I don’t know exactly what they look like, they are the kind of wave associated with relaxing activities like warm showers and gentle strolls, so I picture them long and mellow. But the point is, Bhattacharya could see it every time—literally see it. Once those alpha waves rolled in, the insight was near.

This suggests that, for certain types of puzzles, look all you want, you will never find the answer scouring the labyrinth of left-brain reasoning. You need to pause—to literally switch offline—to get to the answer.

Though exactly how these alpha waves prime the brain is unknown, the idea is that they work in some way to wash away that distracting brain chatter (the heavy blood flow Kounios and Beeman observed at the start of a puzzle in the left brain), so you can hear the answer. Where exactly does the answer come from? Back to the enigmatic Sphinx (the aSTG). The idea is that the Sphinx “knows” the answer all along. It’s an area of the brain that’s not so great at words, but can make broader “sense-of things” connections—associations, metaphors, getting jokes—instantaneously. But it’s quieter. Thus, you just need to get out of your own way. Chill out. Allow a breeze, the slow waves, to literally wash away your own noise.

Allow me to explain some of my experience with this.

When I took Marya Sea Kaminski‘s solo performance class in January, I had this “Ah-ha!” moment just walking through the door. I’d been overloading myself with science fiction for months, and had had several brilliant ideas for short stories. One of those was from a first-person perspective. When I signed up for this class, I immediately started agonizing about having to write from only my own experience. While the scifi ideas I come up with often involve things I’m interested in or somehow come in contact with (Glenn Beck, MakerBots), I wouldn’t say that any of what I’ve written in the past 7 months has been “from my own experience.” It’s not autobiographical in any way.

So here I am, first day of the solo performance class, wringing my hands about how boring my life is and how I’m going to approach it in an interesting way. My friend Jenni Taggert – who is a great clown, and apparently also a great writer – is also taking the class with me, so we chat a bit before the class starts. I tell her why I’m taking the class (beef up my writing skills), and what I’m afraid of (writing about my life and then performing it). She looks at me quizzically and says, “I don’t think we’ll have to write about that exclusively.” The door to the blackbox theatre opens and we gather our things to walk inside.

That’s when it hits me – this first-person POV scifi near future dystopia could be a solo performance.

So I do it. It is well-received. So I start thinking about expanding it, but I’m not sure how to do that. I talk to a few people and get some ideas about what aspects of the world they’re interested in seeing more of. I start thinking about adding other characters – expanding on the mother character, adding a news reporter, something like that.

At the same time, I start massive amounts of research. The near future dystopia is a totalitarian “moral majority” Christian world, so I start listening to a lot of Glenn Beck podcasts, I read about the moral majority and the Tea Party and Creationism.

After several weeks of bombarding myself with this belief structure, I get the itch to write. But I’m not sure what to write about. So I start thinking, who would be the best mouthpiece for all of this junk I’ve just shoved into my brain? And the only person I can think of is Glenn Beck. Because I’ve listened to so much of his verbal vomit, I’m familiar with his platform, how he represents himself and the country, and I’ve even started sympathizing with some of his ideas about small business and “rebuilding” the nation.

So I create a Glenn Beck-esque character, who has some sympathetic points of view (education reform and community support are two huge issues that I dance around in the show). And it occurs to me how this as-yet-unnamed-She fits into the show, while I am smack in the middle of writing a moral conservative screed. I am actually able to make her sympathetic and I tie her life into the original character’s life.

Not sure how to finish the show yet, I take the two monologues I have so far, cut them up and weave them together. I take the script to a dear friend of mine, and she gives me great feedback on how she sees it and what she’d like to see at the end. She wants to see the mother character at the end (a character who is very alive in the script without actually being present). So I start writing and writing and I can’t get anything out that I like. I get a decent denouement out of what I’ve written (the mother and the daughter way in the past) but it’s not totally satisfying.

I take the script to a couple more people and read it. By this time I’ve rearranged the order of the two interwoven monologues in a way that I like better. The feedback I get about the mother’s monologue at the end is basically that they agree with me – it’s good, but not totally satisfying.

What would make it more satisfying? I think to myself. I’m just not sure.

In the meantime, I’ve had some other brainstorms for other stories that I start working on. I take the same approach to these – I start researching the bits I don’t know, and let that sit until I get the itch to write. That seems to work out very well.

A few weeks later, it occurs to me – in the middle of research for a different story – that the end doesn’t have to involve the daughter. One of the points made in a recent script reading was that the ending didn’t tell the listener anything new about the mother character, it just reinforced what the listener had already suspected. But, if I go back further in the mother’s life – to her surrender at the end of Civil War II – then there’s a wealth of new information I could write about. So I let that idea percolate for awhile, and finally, last week, I was able to spit something out that I like. While writing, I had brainstorms about how to tie some of her life, described earlier in the play, into her monologue.

I’m concerned it might be a little too preachy, but I think it comes off for the most part. I haven’t read it to anyone yet, but I’m sure once I get feedback I’ll be able to work on it more. I need to do some research on codes, but I’m partially satisfied with the code I invented for that bit.

All of these brainstorms happened because I did a crap-ton of research, walked away from it for awhile but held it in the back of my mind, and finally, an idea popped into the forefront. And it wouldn’t leave me alone until I wrote it down. I had to write down an outline for the mother’s monologue at 1 AM because I couldn’t fall asleep until I did.

So yes, point being, I haven’t had to play hooky from work to do any of this, but not beating my head against the creative wall, and instead walking away for a bit, helps me immensely. I can’t sit down and write for 8 hours a day – in fact, the ideal seems to be “sit down and write 250 words a day.” I mean, force yourself to write as an exercise, as mentioned in The Artist’s Way, but don’t expect most of it to go toward your novel or script. It’s just an exercise in dedication.

Brainstorms help. You can help them out by 1) doing research, 2) backing off and letting it percolate, and 3) exercise your creative muscles a little bit every day. Then, when you have that sudden brilliant flash, you’ll be able to get it out of your head. And, I suspect the more you practice this, the stronger you will become at it, like any muscle.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *